Faculty fiction books become reality

By Lisa Schulz

Like a rushing river in the rural Midwest, some short stories are quickly written and flow on, while others dry up in obsolete valleys, remaining hopeless until it rains with purpose again.

Columbia’s Fiction Writing Department enjoyed a flood of 12 recently released books written by alumni and faculty members including five that are to be released within the next year.

Included are a range of publications, from digital collections of stories to physical novels. Some of the authors’ projects were previously published in literary journals and anthologies, while other stories have been in the making for decades.

“As a writer, it is a rather tricky thing to break into the publishing world,” said Patty McNair, acting chair and associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department. “It’s not so hard to break through in pieces, but in one large swoop, it’s hard.”

McNair, who began teaching at Columbia in 1988 after receiving her Masters of Fine Arts degree from Columbia, is also the author of the story collection “The Temple of Air,” which was released on Sept. 1. Included are some of her oldest works from when she was first an instructor.

The book’s first short story is based on teenagers who witnessed a car crash; the overall story is “haunting” because “it’s like a dream you can’t quite escape,” McNair said. The series’ stories, which are based in the rural Midwest, introduce main characters and combine several characters and plots along the way, such as their parents and victims of the crash, she said.

Her work was published by Elephant Rocks Books, a development she attributes to networking with Jotham Burrello, an adjunct faculty member, and “being in the right place at the right time.”

However, if the stories hadn’t been previously published in magazines and journals, the collection may not have been considered, she said.

“Short story collections are [difficult] to [find] support for,” McNair said. “Also, because it is kind of dark, and at certain times in our country’s history, particularly after 2001, people were reluctant to publish dark material because we were in a dark place.”

Today, audiences are more willing to experience these stories, she said.

Another short-story author and adjunct faculty member in the Fiction Writing Department, Megan Stielstra, also reserved stories for after 9/11.

She faced the same challenges when searching for a publishing company, receiving rejection letters from several publishers that initially displayed interest in her writing but not in the form of a collection, she said.

Despite her passion for short stories, Stielstra took suggestions from publications and composed a novel in an effort to connect with them, McNair said.

In the midst of writing her novel, Stielstra found a contest on the Twitter pages of Canada-based publication companies, Joyland and ECW Press. She won, allowing the company to adapt the Chicago-inspired collection into electronic form.

After the editors told her they had researched her storytelling performances at Second Story, they asked if she’d like to include some of them in the collection.

“It was just so different from everything I’ve come to believe about the industry,” Stielstra said.

She wrote “Everyone Remain Calm,” which is about a female Chicagoan who faces the challenge of dealing with her anemophobia, or fear of the wind. It was initially written for performances with different theater companies. Stielstra said the digital process was very exciting because she’s always been interested in the technology.

On Amazon, the book was released on Oct. 24, but the release date depends on the website, she said.

“You always say when you’re writing [that] the big dream, the holy grail you’re going for, is the book,” Stielstra said. “It wasn’t the paper I wanted to hold in my hands. I wanted my stories to be out there, and I wanted to be connecting with an audience.”

Now, after the struggle to publish short stories, Stielstra has begun writing a novel—but not because she felt she had to. Instead, she wanted to introduce several characters she didn’t get the chance with in her short stories.

Authors of novels also see difficulties in the process of finding a suitable publisher, according to Geoff Hyatt, adjunct faculty in the Fiction Writing Department and 2009 MFA graduate.

“Birch Hills at World’s End,” by Hyatt, which he describes as “tragicomic,” tells the story of a suburban teen planning revenge against his school in 1999. The novel originated as his thesis published by Vagabondage Press and released on Sept. 7. He chose McNair as his thesis director.

He said working with smaller presses like Vagabondage has advantages because the publisher is able to focus more time on the book. Challenges are also involved, though, in terms of distribution, financial issues and the editorial process, Hyatt said. Looking at authors published by a company in the past offers a good evaluation of the publisher, he said.

“You don’t know until you try,” Hyatt said. “[But] pay close attention to their guidelines. Don’t waste your time and theirs.”

The full list of recent releases can be viewed at Colum.edu/Academics/Fiction_Writing/New Books.